August 28, 2012
I USED TO BE disdainful of those who immerse themselves in genealogy, who spend much of their lives searching for that one drop of royal blood that will validate their own existence, as if their own lives were meaningless without a connection to someone noble or great decades or centuries ago.
I don’t feel that way anymore. At least not that strongly. I still believe that many people are into genealogy for the wrong reasons. They have somehow convinced themselves that their friends or acquaintances will hold them in higher esteem if they can prove that a great, great, great grandfather was a cousin to the king of England’s butler, or that a great, great grandmother belonged to a great Indian tribe.
But I’ve also come to know people who are very much interested in genealogy simply because they are curious, or because they like the challenge of getting through the numerous obstacles to be encountered in a genealogical quest. One of my nieces is a serious genealogy buff. She has earned a PhD. and has accomplished much, professionally and personally, so she doesn’t need any connection to a great or famous ancestor to validate her life. She has done a lot of work because she enjoys doing the research, and I have thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in the names and dates she has found that connect me all the way back to a poor Mexican Indian couple near San Luis Potosi sometime in the mid-1600s. I am grateful for her work; I don’t think I’d have the patience and persistence she has.
At the same time, I find myself more drawn to more recent history, to the lives and stories of the people I knew as a child, or heard about when growing up. I am fascinated by their lives and I regret that I didn’t spend more time trying to learn more about them while they were still on this earth. But it’s the same thing. Some people are interested in distant past, others in more recent ancestors.
And I think it’s good. I think it has value, not because we can find glory or honor in the past, and not because it will validate our worth. We are worth something. Here. Today. We have value in our own right. We have honor, and it matters little whether our ancestors were kings or slaves, captains of industry or peons.
Knowing who our ancestors were and what they did does help put our lives in perspective. It helps us understand where we fit in the whole scheme of things. But there is a danger in becoming too involved in genealogy, or even in the recent past. We run the risk of living in the past, not in the present, of yearning for the things that were and not learning how to deal with the things that are.
And, as I said, we end up with a misplaced sense of pride, or even shame: I am great because my great-great something-or-other was of noble blood. Or, I can’t possibly be great because all my ancestors were nobodies.
I have always maintained that the only things that we can be proud of are the things that we did ourselves, or that we helped accomplish. That’s why I’ve always avoided boasts such as, “I am proud to be an American,” or, “I am proud to be Mexican.” I am damn glad I have Mexican blood in my veins and I will forever be grateful to my parents for having decided – for whatever reason – to move to this country, making it possible for me to be to be born on American soil, but I am not proud of it. I had absolutely nothing to do with either of those two things.
Again, we can’t take pride in things we didn’t create or cause. But we can take pride in what we do with the knowledge we gain about our past, about those who came before us, and how we use that knowledge to better ourselves – and our world.
If our ancestors’ struggle for freedom and dignity – or just simply survival – can help us gain the strength to do the same, for ourselves and for others, then the knowledge of their struggle is clearly worth something. If, however, all we do with that knowledge is brag about it, then we haven’t put it to good use and, in fact, wasted a lot of valuable time (our own time and the time of those who must listen to our stories).
Let me give you an example. Another relative has done extensive genealogical research on my mother’s side of the family. She talks excitedly about a story she has heard but hasn’t been able to verify. It’s about a distant relative who was in the Mexican army and was assigned to be part of the firing squad that was to execute the emperor Maximilian.
According to the story, this distant uncle/cousin/whatever simply could not allow himself to take part in the killing of defenseless man, and so he refused. And for that he faced the firing squad himself. What a great story! This is a story that I would really – really! — love to be true. I mean, here is a man who supposedly did what I would love to believe I would do in a similar situation.
But we’ll probably never know if that story is true. And even if it did turn out to be true, what good will it do me? Will it make me a better person? A nobler person? Will it make me better than my colleagues or neighbors of friends? No. Not one bit.
If, however, I were to keep that knowledge of that brave and principled ancestor in my heart and use it to strengthen my backbone the next time circumstances demand that I speak up or act, then that knowledge will have been worthwhile.
The simple truth is that our heritage is not what makes us better than those around us. It may make us different, or set us apart, but it doesn’t make us better. Only when we figure out how to apply the differences for the greater good can we say that we are truly paying tribute to our ancestors.
And the simple imperative is that we should not spend our present concentrating on the past while ignoring today and avoiding the future. That would be like driving while looking only at the rear-view mirror. A rear-view mirror is essential, but only because it allows us to move forward. And if we really insist on looking behind us, we should look at our more recent past. We should not concentrate on the distant past while ignoring the lives of our older folks who are still with us today and who carry with them much knowledge and wisdom. We should not ignore the lives of our parents and grandparents. Their words – which are infused with life and soul – are much more important, much more meaningful than stuffy, dusty old books crammed with facts and faceless names and numbers.
I worry that the children and grandchildren of my nephews and nieces have almost no knowledge or appreciation of the lives of their grandparents and great grandparents, of the struggles and obstacles they had to overcome to allow them to give their children the lives they have today.
Even worse, I worry that some of them, those who were born into a life of relative privilege, might believe that they earned what was given to them and now look down their noses at those who are less privileged – the new immigrants, the welfare or food stamp recipients (I am reminded of Ann Richards’ observation about George Bush: he was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple).
We owe it to our children to connect them to those who came before them. We should not let any one of those old people go to their graves without recording their stories. If we do, our children and grandchildren will one day wonder why in the world we failed to do that for them.